Thursday, September 1, 2011

Sex and science fiction, Part One

I recently did a one-hour interview for BBC Radio 4 about how science fiction uses sex and gender to tell stories about issues of power and procreation. The result is a two-part documentary, Cat Women of the Moon, which includes commentary from me and other writers (Geoff Ryman, China Mieville, Iain Banks, Sarah Hall) and academics (Farah Mendelsohn, Patricia Duncker) and others (Mike Ashley, a bibliographer and editor). You can listen to Episode 1 here.

The producer of the programme, Nicola Swords, sent me questions ahead of time. I did a lot of thinking, made copious notes--and didn't get to use most of them. I hate letting things go to waste so I've tidied them up a bit, and will post them in two parts.

There are ten questions altogether, but because I spent more time on the early ones, I'll post three here and the other seven tomorrow or Monday.

As you were growing up what books were you reading? Were there any limitations in how gender was dealt with?

I grew up in Yorkshire, in Leeds, in a big Catholic family. One of five sisters. I went to Catholic schools. Girls were ecouraged to become secretaries or nurses, then get married and have lots of little Catholic babies. The school libraries reflected this. But I thoroughly enjoyed hagiographies: fabulously gruesome tales of torture and angels and demons and whatnot. Great stuff. Though I never could wrap my head around the notion of martyrdom: why not lie and say, hey, I renounce God, get away from the lunatics, then recant the lie later and recruit more Christians? That way, god would have a net gain. But when I made the mistake of mentioning this to the nuns I think they came close to dunking me in holy water. I became known as that Griffith girl.

But I could get books from the local library and I read all the adventure books I could find: anything with ships or guns or swords or animals on the cover.

In these books--historical adventure fiction by Rosemary Sutcliff and Henry Treece--all the protagonists were boys or men. In fact, just about all the characters were men. Without women there, the men became just people. So I simply identified with the people hacking their way through the jungle or swinging onto a pirate ship or charging the half-naked Celts in the mist, and didn't miss the girls. Honestly, I'm not sure I noticed.

So I felt no gender constraint when I read novels.

But my older sisters subscribed to the girls' comix of the time, things like Bunty and Judy. So I read those, too. My favourite stories were time-slip pieces. The kind of thing in which a girl goes back in time to some momentous event and provides the crucial action, the pivotal step, that makes it all possible, and then is sent back, with no one the wiser. But the kicker is: she does this amazing, heroic thing and NO one knows about it! She doesn't get to be hero, she just smiles privately to herself. To me the point of being a hero is to be admired for it. It's a public thing.

The first 'about gender' fiction I remember reading was all written by men. The very first, when I was 14 or so, was E.E. 'Doc' Smith's LENSMEN series (space opera, written in the 30s and 40s), which featured, in a minor plot thread, the 'matriarchy of Lyrane': a planet--one big monoculture--on which 6-feet tall amazons, perfect physical specimens, kept their males (wizened, combative mating machines) in cages. The women, though biologically human, had no notion of art or beauty; they didn't know the meaning of love. It took me a while to figure out why this made me so cross: the assumption of heterosexuality, the assumption that without men, women aren't human.

Then there was Edmund Cooper (Five to Twelve, 1968, and Who Needs Men, 1972): role-reversal exploitation novels in which women do to men what men have done to women for thousands of years, with a sprinkling of extra girly viciousness and some lesbian orgies. (I read them as a teen; they fascinated and repelled me in equal measure.)

Not longer after Cooper, I read John Wyndham's "Consider Her Ways" (1956), which is the first 'Buffy really is in the asylum' story I ever read. (But maybe she she has travelled to the future...) Women in a women-only society, I was told, again, aren't human: they're insectoid and collective and sluggish and dim.

Then, of course, there was Heinlein. I Will Fear No Evil (1970) is a man-wakes-up-in-a-woman's-body novel, in which a 70 yr-old tycoon turns into a squishy girlie giggle-monster because, well, that's what having breasts will do to a girl. She'll have sex with anything that moves, as long as it's a boy.

It was at this point that I stopped reading sf. I got really tired of reading about boys doing things--and girls giggling about it. Or girls acting like boys (though still giggling, sigh).

Then I discovered feminism. Then I discovered sf by women, an improvement. Mostly.

Joanna Russ was a giant. Her best? "When It Changed" (which made me very, very angry--at men, and at Russ herself, for what, to me, felt like a failure of imagination*), and "The Mystery of the Young Gentleman," a brilliant novella about the perception of gender.

I read Sally Miller Gearhart's The Wanderground in 1981 and fell in love with its utopian essentialist message: women are Good and Kind and Nice, Men are Nasssty and Will Get What's Coming. A few months later I started thinking, 'Hang on a minute...' and figured out essentialism was, to put it politely, arrant nonsense.

The Tiptree pieces that had the most impact on me were "The Women Men Don't See" (Yes! I thought, yes!) and "Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light!" (which broke my heart, just made me ache--this was another 'Buffy really is in the asylum' story--not exactly sf, but a piece of metafiction that couldn't have existed without sf).

Daphne Du Maurier's "Monte Verità" was, I think, one of the first gender-is-a-prison stories I read. I don't know when it was written but from the tone I'd guess the late twenties. It's a story of yearning to escape, to be free, and has an elegaic, flapper-freedom-can't-last undertone.

Marghe Piercy wrote Woman on the Edge of Time, published the same year as "Your Faces, O My Sisters..." (and, this time, Buffy most definitely is in the asylum). I loved this book but can't read it now because of its utopian essentialism.

In the eighties, one of my on-again off-again lovers moved to the US. When she came back to visit, she brought Marion Zimmer Bradley imports. The Shattered Chain and Thendara House are great adventure novels, full of sturm und drang (literally storms: melodrama of the highest calibre) with sex roles and gender discrimination (and swords! and ponies!) at their heart.

It was about this time that I read Elizabeth Lynn's fantasy series, THE CHRONICLES OF TORNOR (beginning with The Watchtower), in which women find a way to win without fleeing a mixed-gender world in which mean are occasionally allies, not enemies. Very satisfying.

Satisfying in an entirely different mode was Suzy Charnas's Walk to the End of the World and Motherlines, stark post-apocalyptic men vs women dystopian/utopian adventures. They were relentless in their logic, brilliant in their clarity. But, oof, having to have sex with horses to reproduce...

I read many other important about-gender novels at this time, too, though none grabbed me the way the ones above did:

Benefits, Zoe Fairburns
The Female Man, Russ
The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin
The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood
The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You, Dorothy Bryant

In the late eighties I found men playing with gender ("O Happy Day!" Geoff Ryman). In the early nineties some women began to fuck with my head in earnest in ways that relied on familiarity with the oeuvres of both feminst and fantastic fiction ("Game Night at the Fox and Goose", Karen Joy Fowler, "Our Lady Tongue," Lucy Sussex).

To what extent do you think science fiction offers scope to explore gender in a way other genres might not?

Realism, mundane fiction, can only explore gender in terms of What Is: what's possible within the legal, cultural, and biological constraints of the reader and writer's society. SF gets to ask What If?

You could argue that SF is, essentially, a post-modernist genre, obsessed with not accepting fixed meaning. There's nothing SF writers and readers like better than to turn over the stones of cultural institutions and look at the assumptions wriggling underneath.

SF gets to ask of gender: What if our understanding of gender is wrong? What if it doesn't have to be this way? What if we can change it?

So we can ask: What if there are five genders? Or only one? Or no such thing? What happens if you separate biological sex and gender? Or can perfectly reassign sex and/or gender, at will, as many times as you like? We can ask: How would the world look if the notion of binary gender vanished? Or if one sex or gender was given ascendancy over the other, or others, on a rotating schedule?

SF, if it chooses, can turn gender from a war or a life sentence or a prison into a game, or fashion statement, or rollercoaster ride. SF can change one parameter, or all of them.

There is a long tradition of women-only societies in science fiction. Why did you decide to write about one in Ammonite?

When I was 19 or 20 I started reading feminist theory for the first time. It was new to me. Shocked my socks off. Until then I honestly hadn't spent any time thinking of men or women, just people. But reading about the systematic subjugation of women--of people like me--made me deeply angry.

In response I started to write a short, satirical story called "Women and Children First." A starship hurtling through the void gets hit by a meteorite. The lantern-jawed captain bellows, "Women and children to the lifeboats!" And the women say, "Okay!" and they go off and land on a planet and live happily ever after without men. The end. Ha, I thought, that'll teach 'em!

But a funny thing happened on the way to my ironic essentialist lesbian feminist utopia. I started to ask myself: Why were these women travelling in the first place? What would happen when the kids started growing up and the little girls started fancying the little boys? What would happen when the women started disagreeing about how to handle all these things? And Foomp! went my utopia. Women, I realised, once again, were just people, not oppressed saints--which meant, once again, that men were just people, not monsters.

So in the space of just a few days on the Feminist Rage Speedometer I went from zero to sixty to a screeching halt, wrapped around a tree. Writing helped me see things differently.

It also had me hooked. So I kept writing that story set on the planet of women and children just to see what happened. It turned into a novel. And then I wrote a sequel set hundreds of years later, in which, the planet was divided into two territories one women-only, one mixed.

And then I realised the books were rubbish, that I'd have to teach myself to write.

So I set aside all that gender stuff and started writing short stories. The first one I had published, in Interzone, in 1988, was called "Mirrors and Burnstone." Basically a story of alien contact and culture clash. And one day I was on a panel at a convention, talking about sf and gender--and how women and aliens were, politically, interchangeable in most sf--when I suddenly realised that the aliens of my story were, in fact, women. And the plot of Ammonite just dropped into my head like a screen menu.

I sat mute for the rest of the hour, didn't say a word. I couldn't see past this concept unfurling in my head. Kind of embarrassing but, hey, that's how it works sometimes. Not always convenient.

I'd read many stories and novels of women-only worlds and been dissatisfied with all of them. None of the writers seemed to believe, deep down, that women were simply people. I wrote Ammonite to answer the question: are women human? Are they fully human in, of, and by themselves--as opposed to in comparison with, or reflections of, or warped by men. I wrote a world of many cultures--warlike and peaceful, protectionist and open, tribal and kin-based--in which women played all the roles: leader and follower, stupid and smart, generous and mean-spirited.

The rest--why you can do more in fiction with single-sex socieites, how the portrayal of gender has shifted, and more--in Part Two tomorrow or Monday.

*See Part Two for more on this, or see my essay, "Living Fiction and Storybook Lives."
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